OPINION: It's time for farmers to reconnect with consumers

Rebecca Mayhew runs the dairy and farm shop at Old Hall Farm in Woodton near Bungay

Rebecca Mayhew runs the dairy and farm shop at Old Hall Farm in Woodton near Bungay - Credit: Rebecca Mayhew

While the new year brings new challenges, it also heralds new opportunities for farmers to reconnect with their customers says Rebecca Mayhew of Old Hall Farm in Woodton near Bungay.

We were promised better things in 2021 (than 2020), but it has certainly been a tough year for many, regardless of whether you’re in the farming industry or not.

I’m sure I’m not alone in being pleased to say cheerio to the last 12 months because surely 2022 will be better, won’t it?

There is a Chinese curse which says “may he live in interesting times”. Like it or not, in agriculture we are indeed living in interesting times.

These are times of uncertainty and risk, but they are more open to the creative nature of humankind than any other time in history.

Trade deals with Australia, for instance, where many of their farming systems include practices which have been banned in the UK for some time, feel frustrating and, to the commodity seller, slightly soul-destroying.

But amongst the angst we must not forget that there are exciting opportunities which will emerge.

I was asked to speak at the Country Land and Business Association’s annual conference in December.

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The theme was “Towards Net Zero”, and what was clear at this meeting of over 550 farmers and landowners, scientists, agricultural experts, and the odd politician, was that land use and farming have never been more important.

Carbon sequestration alongside habitat restoration and food production were discussed at length, and it is important that farmers aren’t left out of this conversation. After all, we’re the ones growing the ingredients, right?

I was also asked to speak at Norwich Science Festival in October, and from this session one thing became very clear – food and health are at the forefront of many household discussions, together with climate change.

These things are all interlinked, and our customers (the real ones who eat the food, not the commodity buyers) are beginning to realise this.

Dairy cows at Old Hall Farm in Woodton near Bungay

Dairy cows at Old Hall Farm in Woodton near Bungay - Credit: Rebecca Mayhew

The chance to innovate in 2022 is also an exciting prospect. Rising fertiliser and synthetic input prices will encourage farmers to be more innovative and to rely less on chemicals and more on soil health and biodiversity.

Embracing this will certainly add resilience to your farming business, as well as the huge benefits to nature and the nutrient density of the food you produce.

Rewilding has been thrust up the agenda too, rightly or wrongly, but it is clear to me from conversations with our customers, that while habitat restoration is crucial, following the food shortages (however brief) in 2020, our customers' eyes are on food security too.

Surely the best option for us here is to produce food while looking after nature and our ecosystem processes?

It sounds daunting but all of these issues give rise to opportunities for farmers to connect with our true customers, and get the story of the food that we produce out there on the table. Literally.

Farmers in the UK, without doubt, are among the best in the world, but we are going to have to fight our corner – we can be the catalysts for positive change rather than waiting for changes to be thrust upon us.

Lobbying for accurate labelling should be on our list of things to do in 2022 – I truly believe that the British public want to support their farmers, so let’s make it as easy for them as possible.

Telling our stories is crucial – I know that selling direct isn’t for everyone, but telling the story of food from field to plate is easier than it sounds.

We all use social media, so set up a business account and get your story out there. Trust me - as someone who has had customers in their farm shop sobbing with relief because we had eggs, bread and milk, people want to hear from you.

Visitors at Open Farm Sunday at Old Hall Farm in Woodton near Bungay

Visitors at Open Farm Sunday at Old Hall Farm in Woodton near Bungay - Credit: Rebecca Mayhew

Other options for reaching out to the public are via LEAF Open Farm Sunday (which doesn’t have to be a huge event), FaceTime a Farmer and, of course, via contact with local schools.

This is the first time in generations that people in the UK have faced uncertainty surrounding their food and it isn’t a fear that will disappear in a hurry.

Food and farming are so vital for us all. They should be central to our thinking, not peripheral to it.

Everybody has to eat. Anything that can connect those who eat with those who actually produce (not process) food will be positive for all of us and ensure the longevity of our farming businesses.

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